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Hoping to train economists with good writing skills and an aptitude for ethics

The economists John A. Hunnes and Torunn Skåltveit Olsen believe that there is more than just economics needed to prepare economics students for the challenges of the future.

“There are a number of good reasons to focus on ethics and writing. One of these is that the employment market is looking for expertise in sustainability. Companies wish to employ people who have the ability to think critically about what the business in question is doing, and preferably also be able to formulate themselves in response to this too. Ethics should be automatic for the economists of the future,” says associate professor John A. Hunnes at the School of Business and Law at UiA. 

He points out that sustainability is the new buzzword which also applies to the economics subject. 

“Whether you are going to invest in or run a company, you have to think sustainability and continually assess ethical dilemmas connected to green development. Employers are interested in employees with the ability to reflect and to make good ethical decisions. At the same time, we see that students wish to work for more environmentally-conscious companies which take ethical responsibility. This is something that educational institutions must take on board, and this is something that we have done,” says Hunnes. 

Ethically conscious economists

Bilde av førsteamanuensis John Arngrim Hunnes.

“Whether you are going to invest in or run a company, you have to think sustainability and continually assess ethical dilemmas connected to green development. Employers are interested in employees with the ability to reflect and to make good ethical decisions,” says Associate Professor John Arngrim Hunnes.

Together with Associate Professor Torunn Skåltveit Olsen, he has redesigned the examination, teaching and syllabus in ethics. 

“For several years, ethics has only been a small part of economics training. It is typically something that one addresses towards the end of the economics training programme. Hunnes and Olsen have chosen to begin with ethics teaching as early as in the first semester. The objective was, amongst other things, to work in ethics as a fundamental component of the subject, and not as an addition to the economics programme”. 

“We wish for ethics to form a basis which the students take with them in the course of their educational training. We improve the teaching by discussing, amongst other things, relevant ethical problems and reflecting on them together with the students. The assignments that we make for the students took current affairs newspaper articles as their point of departure,” says Hunnes. 

The teaching went from one-way communication to being seminars based on dialogue and reflection. The lectures were recorded as videos, and were designed in such a way that students would contribute from their own initiative and submissions. The subject “Ethics and the social responsibility of businesses” now comprises of three parts: academic writing, ethics, and the social responsibility of companies in a Norwegian and international context. 

Searching for optimal teaching plans

Hunnes and Olsen are trying continually to find optimal teaching methods and have had various experiences along the way. Early in the restructuring of the subject, a need emerged to teach the students about academic writing.

“All writing skills which we, as academics and economists, take for granted, have to be learnt – for example using sources, being able to discuss an issue, and using theory when you write. We took these elements into our course because there were no other places where the students could learn this. In collaboration with the library, the students now get six hours of plenary lectures about academic writing,” says Olsen. 

And it does not stop there. One of the most comprehensive working tasks that the economists have taken on is to provide thorough feedback on the assignments that the students write. 

“The most ambitious part of our plan is that we give individual feedback to our 350 students. We put them into groups of three, and spend 45 minutes on each group. This means that we have the opportunity to speak with each individual student about writing, economics and ethical reflection as early as in the first semester. This is a good starting point that the students can take with them,” says Hunnes.

Bilde av førstelektor Torunn Skåltveit Olsen.

Torunn Skåltveit Olsen is associate professor at the School of Business and Law at UiA, and carries out research into issues connected to young recipients of disability benefit, part-time work, absence due to sickness and the social responsibility that companies have. 

He emphasises that an absolutely decisive factor is the leadership of the School of Business and Law at UiA, which is part of new teaching plans and supports researchers with resources along the way. 

“We have received the support that we need the whole way,” he says. 

Topical assignments 

Andreas Mosvold Salvesen is one of the students who has completed the new ethics course. 

“We didn’t get many assignments, but what we did get was highly topical and therefore relevant and interesting for us students. The topical assignments contributed to constructive discussions in the group work,” he says. 

The student believes that a strengthening of the ethics subjects will provide future economists with more legitimacy.

“We grow up in a world in which we have to learn how to have more respect for both the environments and people. Therefore, it is important to emphasise what we as economists can contribute with. I also believe that the legitimacy of the economist will be strengthened by the fact that we know more about ethics,” he says. 

Received a prize for the restructuring

Each year, the University of Agder awards a prize to innovative teaching and development projects. The education prize for 2018 went to the work that Hunnes and Olsen have done with ethics and writing in the economics subjects. The prize-winning researchers are not resting on their laurels though, but are working continually to develop the course. They have already published an international article about the educational activities involved, and have plans to write four new ones, two of them in collaboration with colleagues from the engineering sciences and education. Two books are also on their way. 

“We imagine that we will be each publishing an academic book during the course of 2020. My book is about ethics and economics, whilst Torunn is writing about the social responsibility of companies,” says Hunnes.